Finishing Takes the Lead

While document finishing may not have the appeal of an eye-catching design element or the rhythm of a running press, it is a key element in the success of almost every print job.

Are there ways to use your finishing capabilities to improve sales or provide added value to your customers. According to the some of the industry’s leading vendors, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

“Those with a full bindery department can steer customers towards more expensive, value added, bindery options such as wire-o, or plastic coil, or more economical products such as perfect bound books,” says David Spiel of Spiel & Associates. “The printer with his own bindery department has more control and a bigger profit margin as well as quicker turnaround times.”

Richard Trapilo of C.P. Bourg agrees. “Generally speaking, if a printer’s bindery can handle both digital and offset print, short runs, occasional or constant ‘books of one’ profitably, then they are in good position to use the bindery to help drive business and profits,” he says.

For printers who are looking for a potential niche market, Kent Dalzell of FastBind USA has a bit of advice. “There is so much information about the growth and opportunity in the photo book and photo album sector, that many commercial printers see the potential and want to also sell into the photography and photo book market,” he points out.

“As commercial printers transition to the newer digital printing technologies, the print quality meets or exceeds the consumer’s expectation for photo books. So by adding in-house finishing of customized hard covers and perfect binding or mounted albums, they can now meet this market’s expectation for the packaging, such as larger book formats,” Dalzell notes.

“Today, it is most important to leverage your finishing capabilities and connect your customers with specific products you offer. For example, ‘24 hour service on business cards’ or ‘customized business forms at great prices,’” adds Rollem International’s Larry Corwin. “To satisfy the offer you are making, it is vitally important to have the correct finishing equipment that allows for fast, reliable, and economic production.”

Hybrid Workflow Requirements

A great number of printers have transitioned to a hybrid offset/digital workflow in recent years. While most are well versed in finishing offset work, there are some different considerations for the digital bindery.

As Trapillo explains, “Digital printing relies on lots of color, often heavy digital ink or toner coverage on coated stocks, and produces collated sets. Therefore, they need binding and finishing equipment with transport mechanisms that won’t misfeed coated paper, won’t disturb or crack inks and toner, and maintain set integrity. They also need automated equipment with operator-friendly digital interfaces that do fast job changeovers and handle short print runs efficiently without waste.

“Obviously, if they opt for in-line finishing systems matched to their digital press such issues should be addressed. But if they want to accommodate a hybrid workflow, they need systems with the flexibility to accommodate uncollated offset output as well as collated digital output while maintaining set integrity,” he says.

“Most finishing machines have designed faster set-up times, keeping consistent with the trend of smaller print runs and the need for fast turnaround,” observes Corwin. “There is a great difference between the qualifications and skill sets of a digital press operator and that of an offset press operator. Finishing machines must be understood by both and, ideally, should be carried over to satisfy the needs of both printing processes.”

“Printers need to invest in finishing capabilities that can adapt to both offset and digital jobs,” adds Si Nguyen of Duplo. “Printers also need to have a game plan for their finishing department to determine what jobs and quantity cut-off points are so that they can determine the right job for the right piece of equipment to maintain productivity, quality, and operator’s speed. We think that multi-function capabilities along with complete automation are the trend for hybrid printers to incorporate in order to minimize bindery bottlenecks.”

Spiel echoes that thought, saying, “If printers have older automated finishing equipment they may find it more labor intensive. After crunching the numbers on updating equipment, they may find it profitable to upgrade to newer equipment that is more ‘set up’ friendly.”

Getting down to more technical specifics about the requirements for finishing digitally printed materials, Nguyen says, “Typically paper substrate printed from a digital press is more challenging for finishing equipment to handle than offset. We’re talking about paper curl due to heat from the press fuser, very high static as the moisture is sucked out of the substrate, image easily scratched off as dry ink (toner) is only set on the surface of the substrate, and image shifting as there are no paper gripers during an image-setting process inside the press.”

“Aside from a chance for paper distortion—shrink, curl, etc.—during digital printing, most finishing machines shouldn’t care how the image got onto the paper, but more importantly, what happens to the paper after the image is printed,” Corwin adds. “Having a complete understanding of the paper or substrate is helpful in understanding the challenges of finishing a sheet of paper that may have been altered during the print process.”

“One big change is that from scoring to creasing,” states Spiel. “Rotary scoring blades cause digitally printed sheets to crack once they are folded. The new creasing machines use a male and female reciprocating die to put the impact crease in the sheet, leading to less cracking.”

Trapillo ticks off a checklist of issues: “Coated stock that challenges older transport mechanisms; heavy digital ink and toner coverage requiring careful handling, folding, and scoring; short print runs demanding fast, efficient job changeovers, operator friendly interfaces, and process automation; pre-collated output requiring a different workflow; and variable printed output, demanding set integrity be maintained.”

The Bottleneck

Generally considered to be a labor intensive process that creates a bottleneck, post press is now beginning to catch up with the front of the shop in terms of automation.

“Traditionally, American printers use more labor intensive binding machines than their European counterparts. This is because labor here is much less expensive than in Europe,” Spiel explains. “It is not uncommon to see multiple semi-automatic wire binders being used to bind a big run. In Europe, we would be more likely to see one automatic machine binding the same job. As labor costs increase in the U.S., we will see more sales of highly automated equipment.”

“Finishing is labor intensive if the equipment is not automated,” agrees Nguyen. “There is still a very high number of printers holding on to their 10-20 year old bindery equipment. And some even still have manual labor processes. Unless automation is implemented to decrease or even eliminate finishing, addressing finishing bottlenecks will still be a challenge.”

“Newer, more compact, more efficient, and highly automated finishing systems are capable of keeping up with or exceeding most print production speeds and therefore have not contributed to production bottlenecks for some time,” Trapillo observes.

The Digital Question

While printers understand the difference between a printer that is digital and one that is not, what does it mean when a piece of finishing equipment is referred to as being digital?

“One manufacturer may market their product as ‘digital’ as it has some features that work with digital output better than offset, but there is no real distinction in the marketplace,” says Dalzell. “There are some creaser/scorer/folder manufactures who specialize in digital output where their products do make a big difference, but in the soft and hard cover binding industry it’s just a marketing term.”

“Much of the differential has to do with marketing. As digital printing continues to grow, it only makes sense for finishing equipment manufacturers to identify their products with this newer and growing trend,” Corwin concurs. “Realistically, finishing machines that are preparing to process paper that has been produced either digitally or via offset, need to understand the physics of the process they are doing in conjunction with the level of quality that the application is requiring.

“A good rule is to discuss your needs and expectations of your finishing equipment with the sales representative. Always have an ample supply of samples, both digitally and offset printed, to be processed during your demonstration to better understand that machine’s capabilities,” he advises.

“Since binding a book is a mechanical process by nature, a digital binding machine really refers to the set up process,” adds Spiel. “The machines ought to be more user friendly and less prone to intricate set up and operation. It’s the pre-process being described rather than the process itself. This also results in the fact that less skilled and less costly operators can run the machines.”

“Finishing involves mechanical processes that can be either highly automated through the application of digital technology or require varying amounts of operator involvement,” Trapilo notes. “A finishing system shouldn’t be called digital if job changeovers still require special tools and manual intervention, and if processes can’t be easily selected through a menu driven computer interface.”

Nguyen concludes, “Digital is not just a buzzword in our industry, but many others as well. When we provide a digital finishing solution we are providing complete automation, user-friendly setups, a solution that addresses materials handling challenges for work printed on digital presses, and a solution that has open communication architecture interface that can adapt to a printer’s workflow, further streamlining his operations.”

Future Trends

So what post press innovations can quick and small commercial printer expect to see in the foreseeable future? “Although there’s more to come, some of the ‘next big advances’ are already available,” says Trapilo. “We see zero waste driven by digital technology as the next big goal for binding and finishing. In this increasingly digital environment with super-fast turnaround times and tight profit margins, every set printed can be unique, and finishing products and technologies soon will have to produce salable product without wasting a single sheet, kilowatt, stitch, or ounce of glue and deliver the best ROI. ”

“Big advancement for finishing does not necessarily come by new design or technologies, but where current available opportunities can be applied besides post press production processes,” Nguyen observes. “The big advancement currently is in the prepress arena—specifically image imposition for job layout and printing. Finishing parameters can be defined at the prepress stage before printing, minimizing and possibly eliminating waste and makereadies.”

“Short runs of professionally produced, high quality, production grade customized hard cover books,” Dalzell predicts. “Hard cover, lay flat, mounted albums—mainly sold as high-end wedding albums—they are now starting to show up in memory books for children, pets, etc. and even some high-end presentations. ”

Spiel says he expects to see “machines that set up automatically, such as perfect binders that are self adjusting or mechanical machines with a touch screen set-up.”

“Continued development of machine intelligence will surely remain an important part of every finishing manufacturer’s strategy,” says Corwin. “Interest in automatic set up and the growing demand for inline systems that can print, convert, and finish as one process highlights the need for better communication intelligence from one machine process to the next. These will likely remain a high priority.”